How fitting that I would find a copy of Bruce Jenkins’ North Shore Chronicles in a used book store the day before the start of the Vans Triple Crown. Bruce is a local sports writer here in the Bay Area and while he usually writes about more mainstream sports, I have always enjoyed reading his columns on surfing. I had heard about this book for years and knew he was a big fan of surfing so buying the book was a no-brainer.
A word about surfing books. It’s difficult to capture the thrill, danger, and essence of surfing with the printed word. It makes sense though if you think about it. After all, if Hollywood can’t do it with lots of cameras and big budgets (see my recent blog on Chasing Mavericks), how can we expect writers to do it? This task is even harder when writing about big waves simply because it’s hard to visualize a 40 foot wave and how it seems small when compared to a 60 foot wave. It’s even harder when waves are measured Hawaiian style (Hawaiian wave height references the swell height or back of the wave, as opposed to the face of a wave, so a 30 foot wave by Hawaiian standards is closer to 50-60 feet on the face).
That said, the strength in surfing books is usually in the portrayal of the characters riding the waves more than the waves themselves. Not surprisingly, there are lots of characters on the North Shore and Jenkins does a great job introducing them to readers and highlighting their achievements. In fact, each of the book’s chapters focuses on a highly regarded surfer. At the time North Shore Chronicles was published (in 1990) Jenkins had been making an annual trek to the North Shore for almost 15 years. In that time, he had been able to identify, study and really get to know a number of big wave chargers during the 70s and 80s. Not surprisingly, there are some familiar names in the book like Ken Bradshaw, Darrick Doerner, Mark Cunningham, and Mike Stewart but also some other surfers I had never heard of like Trevor Sifton and Tom Nellis. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about all of these surfers.
I found it a little spooky reading about Mark Foo. How was Jenkins to know that just four years after his book was published, Foo would drown on a relatively benign wave at Maverick’s? Foo’s personality was as big as the waves he rode and it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, especially in a surfing community that prefers to let surfing do the talking. But I get it. It takes a special breed to want to ride big waves and, more importantly, ride them well.
When you paddle out there, you look at guys’ faces, into their eyes, and you can tell who really loves it. It’s just a select few that have that look, and the discipline to stay put when it really gets heavy. I mean, the horizon just blacks out. You’ll see the outer reefs go off outside Logs or Alligators, and it just goes black. It’s coming. And you know exactly where. Guys are running and hiding, scrambling all around. If you really want it, you just stay right on that boil.
But things aren’t always what they seem. Despite Foo’s bravado, he wasn’t a daredevil, which creates an interesting paradox or intriguing psychological look into an action sports star.
For me, the more adverse the situation, the more peaceful I am. That’s when I become truly centered. It’s really funny. Basically I’m kind of high-strung and nervous. I’m scared of speed, I’m scared of heights, I don’t gamble. I’m not really into athletics. Surfing big waves is the combination of all these things that are against my nature. That’s why I feel there’s a bigger purpose to it.
Another development since Jenkins’ book was published was the rise of women’s surfing. In the late 80s, Jenkins had observed that the women’s movement had stalled, the professional circuit had been left for dead since 1983, there were no women charging big Hawaiian surf and bodyboarding was likely to be the saving grace for ocean-loving women in Hawaii. Thankfully, women’s surfing is stronger today than ever before. Longboarding reemerged with Daize Shayne Goodwin and Kassia Meador. High performance and professional surfing is loaded with talent, including Coco Ho, Stephanie Gilmore, Sally Fitzgibbons, and many, many more. And big wave surfing, Jenkins’ biggest concern, is proudly represented by Keala Kennelly, Maya Gabeira, and Sarah Gerhardt charging hell waves like Jaws, Teahupoo, and Mavericks. In a nutshell, women’s surfing today is healthy and here to stay.
Other highlights of the book are the chapters on Ken Bradshaw and Darrick Doerner. Laird Hamilton has gotten the lion’s share of press and limelight when it comes to Hawaiian big wave surfing but it’s important to see that there are other legends out there who are just as deserving of recognition and admiration. In addition, Jenkins’ review of Eddie Aikau and the contest at Waimea Bay that bears his name makes for great reading. The 1990 event is featured as, according to chief judge Jack Shipley, featured some of the cleanest conditions in the event’s history. The competitors also noted how unique this contest was.
Mark Foo described the day [January 21, 1990] as “all time epic.” Richard Schmidt put it in his “top three” over the last 10 years. Darric Doerner said it reminded him of a day when he surfed 15-18-foot Laniakea with Wayne Lynch in howling offshores, “tubes so big you could build a house in both directions,” and a level of excitement so great, he was hoarse from yelling. Personally, I felt a sense of privilege to be on the beach.
The 29-year-old [Richard] Schmidt had been smoking-hot all winter, winning the Hawaiian pro contest at 15-foot Sunset and finishing third in the Triple Crown’s Hard Rock event. “When I saw that set feathering on the horizon, I started talking myself into doing it,” he said. “Usually I’m 100 percent positive, but this wave was at least 25 feet, and at that size, your survival instinct tells you to paddle over it. Maybe you don’t want this. But with the contest on, and the crowd and all that, I figured I’d just go for it.
As soon as Schmidt got to his feet, the wave sucked out underneath him and he was pitched into the air. He dropped a good 10 feet through open space. “On a glassy day, my board would have just dropped away,” he said. “But the wind kept it right underneath me. I felt like I was just floating – and then I landed.”
In a spectacular display of balance and positive thinking, Schmidt was still in the wave. He got to the bottom, turned and rode it out. “I was so ecstatic,” he said. “That was probably the heaviest wave of my life. It was the epitome of big-wave riding – putting yourself at the most critical point, on the biggest wave, and coming out unscathed. I was just shaking with adrenalin.”
Again, surfing books struggle to capture the essence of surfing, particularly big wave surfing. Jenkins’ book does not have this problem. I recommend it highly.
Until next time, may your waves be head high and glassy.